PARKER — Douglas County voters will be asked in November whether they want to approve two school funding measures — a $60 million mill levy override and a $450 million bond measure.
The Douglas County School District Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to place the two on the upcoming ballot.
The $450 million bond measure would be used to build three new elementary schools, expand two existing middle schools and maintain and improve the district’s 111 current buildings. Of the 111 buildings the district owns, 89 are schools.
“It would be a no tax increase bond. So, what that means is there won't be a net change to what people are paying in taxes for the bond,” said superintendent Erin Kane.
Douglas County bond question
Bonds are loans the district takes out on the taxpayers behalf that are paid off over time. If the measure doesn’t pass, because of how previous bonding was structured in the district, taxpayers would actually see a decrease in their taxes.
Because of growth, the three elementary schools would be built in Sterling Ranch just west of Highlands Ranch, Crystal Valley in Castle Rock and the Canyons off of the Castle Pines Parkway. Sierra Middle School and Mesa Middle School, meanwhile, would be expanded.
Roughly $140 million would go to maintenance and making the buildings more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, while $54.5 million would go to expanding career and technical education classes.
Part of that money would be used for the former wildlife experience building off of Lincoln, which is now the legacy campus. It is being converted into a career and technical education hub for the district and will partner with surrounding colleges.
Mill levy override
The second question voters will face in November is a $60 million per year mill levy override that will come in the form of higher property taxes for homeowners.
The money will be used for teacher and staff pay raises in an attempt to make Douglas County more competitive with other school districts in the area.
“We want our children to be exceptional. And in order for that to happen, we have to have exceptional people in our classrooms. It is really hard when our teachers can drive down the street to make $18,000 a year more,” said school board member Elizabeth Hanson.
The mill levy override would result in a 9% increase for teachers, a 9% raise for support staff and a 6% increase for principals and assistant principals.
Kane says the district is having a hard time recruiting and retaining educational assistants that help supervise kids with special needs.
“They can make significantly more by going to a local fast-food restaurant. We're struggling with campus security specialists, we're short a number of custodians throughout our schools, our bus drivers, our mechanics. So just truly across the board,” Kane said.
The mill levy override would result in roughly $255 in increased taxes per year for the average homeowner, or as Kane puts it, about $5 per week for a home costing $500,000.
Hanson says passing this, the community would be sending a message to educators that they appreciate the value they add to the community and that they are willing to compensate them for the professionals they are.
“One of my son's teachers leaves every single day and packs up and goes to work at Home Depot because he's unable to provide for his family on the compensation that he receives. My daughter's school lost a kindergarten teacher in the middle of the year because she could make more money going to work at a swimming pool,” Hanson said. “It is not okay to expect the professionals that we have in our district to have to work two or three jobs in order to provide for their families.”
Supporting teachers and schools
Kevin DiPasquale, president of the Douglas County Federation, supports both the bond and the mill levy override and hopes the community will vote in favor of them.
“It's really a matter of coming together and doing what's best for public education, not just doing what's best for students,” DiPasquale said.
However, he says while the raises will improve the conditions for employees, they won’t completely fix the problems, particularly when it comes to educator retention.
“Douglas County used to be a place where people clamor to come work, come live. And now people were clamoring to get out. Nine percent will help slow the bleed, but it won't stop it,” DiPasquale said. “It's really discouraging to see that public education isn't supported in the way that other districts tend to support their school district and community.”
He would like to see the district’s board of education and county commissioners come together to show their public support for the measures.
Hanson agrees that the mill levy override won’t solve all of the district’s funding challenges for staff, but says they need to start somewhere, and this will take time to correct.
Right issue, wrong time
While former school board member Kevin Leung agrees that the issues raised in the bond are important, he does not think now is the right time to move forward with these types of ballot questions.
In the last 20 years, Leung helped work on three different bonds for the district — some successful, some unsuccessful. He says more conservative-leaning areas, like Douglas County, are typically more hesitant to pass new tax increases. And with things like inflation and a possible recession, voters are already facing higher prices.
“In order to get people to vote for it, you have to consider whether you have a favorable political climate and whether you have a favorable financial climate,” Leung said.
Beyond that, Leung says the school board is facing image issues after changing its equity policies, firing previous superintendent Corey Wise and fighting a lawsuit over alleged Open Meeting Act requirements.
“You don't want such negative news while you're asking people for $60 million,” Leung said. “Trust, accountability, and transparency — all of those are in doubt right now.”
He also doesn’t believe the board has done enough in the months leading up to the election to educate voters on what the money would do and where it would go.
In previous bond measures, Leung says the outreach started several months in advance, with financing from the district and an army of volunteers to help. So far, he has not seen that commitment from the current board.
Recent polling by the district also determined that a majority of voters do not support the bond or the mill levy override questions.
A poll from New Bridge Strategy found that while three in four voters said it is extremely important to increase district salaries to retain talent, less than 39% said they would vote for a mill levy override, while 43% said they were a definite no. Democrats and independents were more likely to support the tax increase over Republicans.
“Historically speaking, you cannot climb up from such a low percentage and expect to magically earn more percentage to get to 50% plus one vote to get it passed only 60 days before the ballot,” Leung said.
For the bond proposal, only 36% of those polled said they would definitely vote yes while 40% said they would definitely vote no and 24% said they were unsure.
During a June school board presentation, however, presenters had other polling showing a path forward to help the district win over more support.
Leung’s biggest concern is that if these measures fail, the district will be even further behind than it currently is.
“If you fail, you're not able to get an opportunity to put it on the ballot for a few more years,” he said.
Nevertheless, voters will have the ultimate say in November.